If you think of the internet as its own universe, then Facebook and Google are black holes. They suck in every last bit of valuable content and crush its value down to nothing – all without regard for the financial or human costs. Some of those costs are mostly invisible – such as the gradual stripping away of privacy by their data-driven business models. But some of these costs are crushingly obvious – such as the steady, relentless erosion of the news publishing industry.
According to a recent report commissioned by the National Association of Broadcasters, “[t]here is no viable revenue model from the technology platforms that pays or enables broadcasters to earn equitable revenue” for premium news content. The report authors estimate that broadcasters are losing $1.87 billion per year to the inequitable business models of Google Search and Facebook News Feed alone. These losses are just one big stream that feeds a river of harms to creative industries perpetrated by Facebook and Google under the guise of innovation and progress.
For example, when Facebook launched its Instant Articles feature in May 2015, it claimed it would merely host links to news content while the publishers retained the lion’s share of the advertising revenue and Facebook shared the analytics data with them. The real goal, however, was (and is still) to absorb more and more of the internet so users never have to leave Facebook… so Facebook can keep pushing ads it sells to those captive eyeballs.
It wasn’t long before news publishers became highly reliant upon Facebook as the default front door to their content. This forced the publishers to try to redesign their own business models for a social media world. The drawbacks to this codependent relationship became painfully clear in 2016, when Zuckerberg announced that Facebook would “pivot to video” – with the idea of better cementing those eyeballs to Facebook. Eager to play along, news publishers and other media organizations quickly followed suit, down-shifting text-based news output in favor of short-form video clips, a disastrous move that cost hundreds of journalists their jobs.
What’s worse, it was all for naught – within a year, the gambit had fizzled. Internet audiences were not embracing video news to the extent anticipated, and media organizations undertook another round of layoffs, culling the hastily built video teams that had replaced the writers. Compounding the ire, evidence surfaced that Facebook – ever the black hole – had been misreporting video consumption on its platform, exaggerating the average amount of time users were actually watching video. “Brands were ruined, livelihoods lost, careers destroyed in pursuit of a geyser of video viewership that turned out to be a mirage,” wrote Slate.
One would think that, having wreaked havoc on the news industry, Big Tech companies like Facebook would be eager to take steps to help support journalism. Nope. Facebook, for instance – whose founder once said that “the ability to speak freely has been central in the fight for democracy worldwide” – decided to cut off news to Australian users in February 2021 rather than comply with that nation’s law requiring platforms to pay for news posted on their sites.
Facebook has since relented, entering into side agreements with Australian media companies and launching a grant program to help fund Australian newsrooms. But, Facebook being Facebook, they have found other, more insidious ways of shaping its aggregated news content to benefit its revenue streams. In December 2020, for instance, it decided to retract an algorithm change that weighted news sources based on authoritativeness. The reason for the reversal, over the objection of some of Facebook’s own employees? Facebook wanted to make more money – and they discovered that highlighting higher quality news was reducing the engagement (and hence the ability to sell advertising) produced by more controversial and contentious content.
Google, for its part, has launched its own “Global News Initiative”, wrapping the project in lofty language and stating that its mission is “to work with the news industry to help journalism thrive in the digital age” by funding journalism. But how serious is Google? Well, their only clear commitment is to skew journalism to be nice to Google.
Reporting on Google’s media funding efforts since 2010, the Tech Transparency Project (TTP) critiqued Google’s refusal to offer a centralized public repository of its journalism sponsorships, “making it difficult to assess what the company is giving—and what it may be getting in return.” And, when surveyed, “many recipients said they were precluded by contract from discussing details of their funding,” the report continues.
What funding data the TTP was able to analyze revealed a pattern of giving “designed, at least in part, to advance [Google’s] policy goals” and a willingness to “directly buy favorable coverage from the media.” Which implies that Google is filling the news hole its own business model has helped create with news that is… favorable to Google. That is not just bad for news publishers who still hope to supply unbiased news; when a giant corporation can secretly buy beneficial headlines in the free press, it’s also bad for our democracy.
It’s no secret that lawmakers have caught on to the threats posed by Google and Facebook’s outsized dominance and are making moves to regulate them. One of these moves – the recently introduced Journalism Competition and Preservation Act – would grant news organizations an antitrust exemption so that they could collectively bargain with platforms for compensation. It is difficult to imagine that big media businesses might need a union-like tool to deal with internet platforms, but it reflects the massive power imbalance in the marketplace. This Bill would be a small step forward in making certain that journalism continues to thrive in the digital age.
News needs all the help it can get right now. According to a Stigler Center report, 1,800 newspapers have closed in the United States since 2004. A similar trend is seen in Australia, where the number of journalists in traditional print industries fell by 20% from 2014 to 2017. Google’s and Facebook’s black-hole business models are major drivers of this trend. But how does one fight something whose gravity is so strong seemingly nothing can escape it?
The best way – perhaps the only way – is to avoid falling into the hole to begin with. None of us truly need Google or Facebook for the news. We can consume less news via social media platforms and instead go directly to the news publishers’ websites, or to news aggregators that treat publishers like partners. That way, our dollars can fully support those who create news, not those who make parasitic profits from it.
The best way to support the news is, and will always remain, to pay for the news. It is a lesson Big Tech has avoided learning, but the rest of us know better – and what’s more, we can do better.